The Poet’s Son: Ai Weiwei

Only a poet’s son would take wood and tea and mangled steel and send a message to the world. It was that poet’s son who stood in front of the White House and Tiananmen Square and raised a finger of offense and then photographed himself and called it art. The poet’s son, he’s the one that took pictures of backpacks of thousands of school children killed in China’s Sichuan Province in 2008, when poorly constructed schools collapsed on them during an earthquake.

The poet’s son, Ai Weiwei, who organized the reading of every one of those children’s names in his traveling art exhibit, was just one year old when his family was sent to Xinjiang province where his father, Ai Qing, was interned at a labor camp during the Chinese Anti-Rightist Movement. The year was 1958. In the next two decades, the Cultural Revolution would nearly finish the work of removing intellectuals from mainstream society.

But the heart of writers and artists and musicians would never be erased entirely from the Chinese culture because poets like Ai Qing did the most counter revolutionary thing they could. They passed along their creativity to their children.

In the exhibit of Ai Weiwei’s work at the Indianapolis Museum of Art, “According to What?” there is a small carved rosewood box that was his father’s. The small box inspired Ai to construct a large one cubic meter box also made of rosewood, its hollowness representing the creative range allowed to him by his father to think and explore, even in exile. He “created a lot of mental space for us,” Ai wrote in the exhibition notes. “It was another world.”

When my husband and I visited the exhibit recently, we responded as if it were several different shows in one. In some ways, “According to What?” felt more like a cultural or historical exhibit rather than art, as we viewed photographs of Ai Weiwei in New York with American beat poet Allen Ginsberg or the montage displayed at both the beginning and end of the exhibit showing the construction of the 2008 Olympic Stadium in Beijing and the necessary destruction of homes and buildings to make that possible.

Other pieces displayed resembled curious sideshow exhibits, like “Forever,” the circular installation of interlocking bicycles, or the arched sculpture of reassembled wooden stools called “Grapes,” in which each stool shared at least one leg with another, and all twenty or so stools balanced perfectly on the four legs of one.

At other times, the work seemed purely aesthetic. “Moon Chest” is a series of wooden cabinets with circular cutouts lined up precisely so that when we looked at them end on end, we could see all of the stages of the moon in its circuit.

But around each corner, the politics of Ai Weiwei’s works refused to be overlooked. The triptych of photographs in which he smashes a 2,000-year-old Han Dynasty Urn, the 150 tons of reclaimed and straightened rebar from the Sichuan province earthquake, and the 2009 MRI scan showing the cerebral hemorrhage Ai suffered during a violent arrest all speak to the revolutionary nature of Ai’s work.

Admittedly, I knew about Ai Weiwei’s politicized work before I went to the exhibit. As we walked around the gallery in and out of the large sculptures, I tried to see them as art. Visually appealing pieces, like the rosewood box, the wooden cabinets, and even the small houses made of tea fit nicely into my paradigm. The photos of Ai giving the bird to the White House, the Han Dynasty pottery with Coca-Cola painted on the side, and his cerebral hemorrhage captured on an MRI scan did not.

Ai Weiwei knew I would struggle this way, apparently. And not just me. In a May 26, 2013, New York Times article by Edward Wong, “An Artist Depicts His Demons,” Ai addressed the question: “Can political art still be good art?” Or in my mind – art at all?

“It’s hard for me to look at things that aren’t pretty and call them art,” I said to my husband as we were driving away from the museum.

“Those questions have been around for too long,” Ai said in the article. He was interviewed just outside his home in China where he is surveilled continuously by the Chinese government. “People are not used to connecting art to daily struggle, but rather use high aesthetics, or so-called high aesthetics, to try to separate or purify human emotions from the real world.”

But even in his exile, just as his poet father did, Ai Weiwei creates art that is both aesthetic and angst-ridden, and in sharing it with us all, he gives us the “mental space” to explore our own daily struggles, even when our culture, or ourselves, might otherwise suppress them.

Photo by Edna Winti, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by Charity Singleton Craig.

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  1. says

    Charity, I appreciate the candidness of your reactions to some of Ai’s pieces and the thoughtfulness with which you approach what is not pretty or visually appealing. Contemporary and especially conceptual art is “difficult” for many people. It’s so important to make the effort to look and to see, to consider the implications of art as a means to under the society in which we live, to be exposed to what necessarily is beyond the boundaries we’ve created for ourselves.

    Ai’s sunflower seeds installations is among my favorites; I found it very moving, whereas others see it as no more than a pile of ceramic seeds. And, no mistake, it is political, as virtually everything Ai puts his hand to is. His work can be a profound comment on what we value.

    I hope you’ll see the documentary “Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry” by Alison Klayman.

    • says

      Thanks, Maureen. Yes, I do hope to see the documentary. I find Ai Weiwei to be incredibly provocative and I love so much of what he does. Part of my question about art and beauty that I didn’t have a chance to go into in this piece is the cultural differences between me and the artist. When I look at art from another culture that is politically or culturally risky, I think I make broader assumptions about the culture as whole than I would by looking at an artist from my own cultural or ethnic background. I’m not sure why I do that.

      • Juliana Kapetanov says

        Charity, this is a great piece. Your post makes me want to learn more about Ai Weiwei. His pieces seem very thought-provoking. I like the honesty of your reaction. I think it’s natural to make broader assumptions about a culture that is not your own. However, it’s always important to take a step back and learn about the culture, politics, and history associated with any artist’s work. I think you convey this point perfectly with your explanation of Ai’s background. Very interesting!

  2. says

    I’m so intrigued by the way his father created the “mental space” for his family despite the harsh realities of their lives, making me look at how that works for me, in the midst of a life that is far less harsh and more thinkable. :)

    Thanks for this piece, Charity, your thoughtful and honest response to his work.

  3. says

    This gave me chills: “poets like Ai Qing did the most counter revolutionary thing they could. They passed along their creativity to their children.”

    And all that mental space he acknowledged with an obvious and conscious gratitude….

    Thank you for writing this!
    I want to look for the documentary Maureen mentions.

  4. says

    This is spectacular and intriguing writing, Charity. (BTW, there is no active link on your own site to this post, I had to go to FB to get here. . . ) I have a friend who is an artist – a printmaker and a truly gifted one. She believes strongly that art should not be beautiful for beauty’s sake (not sure I agree with her 100% – I think there is something profound to be said about beauty for its own sake). But what I appreciate about her art is how thoughtful it is, how brave it is. Right after she moved to Santa Barbara, which is a gloriously beautiful resort community, she did a provocative piece that consisted of a series of postcards she made in her usual earth-tone palette. Each one had the typical SB vista on one side. . . and a sketch of a homeless woman pushing a grocery cart on the flip side. Exactly. The flip side. Thanks so much for this.

  5. says

    “It’s hard for me to look at things that aren’t pretty and call them art,”–so true, but those tend to be my favorite things.

    Thank you, Charity. This is all new to me.

  6. Darcy Wiley says

    I was already interested in this exhibit based on my year abroad in China, but after reading your thorough and thoughtful review, I’m going to make sure to get out there before it closes. I read some about the pre-Olympics demolitions and many other social/political stunts in a very interesting book called China Wakes, written by a husband/wife duo. I’m interested to read and see more of Ai Wei Wei’s take on it all.

    • says

      Darcy – I wish we would have had a chance to view the exhibit together when we were at the IMA recently. I would love to hear your thoughts, especially as someone who is much more aware of the culture.


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